On the afternoon of July 2, 1776 in Philadelphia’s State House, the Second Continental Congress voted unanimously to approve a “resolution of independence”. The nation would no longer be British North America, and the United Colonies were transformed into the United States of America.
One of the finest legal minds in Congress was John Adams of Massachusetts, and for over a year he had been advocating separation from the Kingdom of Great Britain. He had been in Philadelphia a year earlier when his wife Abigail and eight year old son John Quincy witnessed the Battle of Bunker Hill.
The British killed 115 Americans, 305 were wounded and 30 POWs were captured (20 of them would die in captivity). Abigail wrote to her husband the next day:
The day; perhaps the decisive day has come on which the fate of America depends. My bursting heart must find vent at my pen. I have just heard that our dear friend Dr. Warren is no more, but fell gloriously fighting for his country — saying it is better to die honourably in the field than ignominiously hang upon the gallows. Great is our loss. He has distinguished himself in every engagement, by his courage and fortitude.
A few hours after Congress acted, John Adams composed one of the over 1000 letters he would send home to Abigail:
The second day of July, 1776, will be the most memorable epoch in the history of America. I am apt to believe that it will be celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival. It ought to be commemorated as the day of deliverance, by solemn acts of devotion to God Almighty. It ought to be solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forward for evermore.
The Congress gathered again on July 3rd and 4th to review the Declaration of Independence, the document which changed the fate of the nation and the world. The first draft had been written by Thomas Jefferson, who was 32 years old.
Adams had more prestige, but he gave Jefferson the assignment based on Abigail’s recommendation. She was not a fan of “the Virginians” because of slavery, but said Jefferson was the best writer in Congress.
Approximately one-fourth of what Jefferson and the Committee proposed was omitted. The final document said the British King had “plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns. . . . He is at this time transporting large Armies of foreign Mercenaries to compete the work of death, desolation and tyranny.”
Over 80 changes were made and some lines were considered too critical of England. The sentence “We might have been a free and great people together,” was erased. The slave trade denunciation was unacceptable to the South, and it was also omitted.
The Declaration was then approved and signed by the President of the Congress, John Hancock, in the late morning of July 4th. Most members of Congress did not sign it until August 2nd.
What they had done was new, and the world now had its first revolutionary government. The last King of British America, HRH George III, immediately said they were all guilty of treason. Years of bitter warfare were ahead of them until the Treaty of Paris was signed in 1783.
John Adams and Thomas Jefferson
John Adams’s prediction was off by two days. He did not realize the declaration announcing the event would overshadow the event itself. Since 1777, the fourth of July has been recognized as the national day of the United States.
Both John Adams and Thomas Jefferson died on July 4th, 1826, the Declaration’s 50th anniversary. (President James Monroe, Jefferson’s next door neighbor, would also die on the 4th). Just a few weeks before his death, Jefferson reflected back on the summer of 1776:
This was the object of the Declaration of Independence. Not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we were compelled to take.
On his tombstone, Jefferson described himself as author of the Declaration of Independence, but omitted being President of the United States for eight years. Today the United States is the most powerful nation the world has ever known. America’s success is possible because of the brave and wise patriots who met in Philadelphia’s Independence Hall and proclaimed:
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.
They published an audacious document that is as relevant and important now as the day it was written. Abraham Lincoln would bring the Declaration and the phrase “all men are created equal” to the forefront of our minds at Gettysburg in 1863. The Magna Carta, Mayflower Compact, Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution were all fostered by wise patriots who wanted freedom and put it into writing. Each was more detailed and comprehensive. Each was written as an agreement to give people the freedoms they are born with, and empowered with by government.